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The Meaning of Passover

            On the night of March 29, if previous years are any guide, something truly miraculous will happen.  Something like 93% of all Jews in North America will find their way to a seder, to celebrate Passover together with other Jews.  Religious Jews, secular Jews, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox Jews, Jews who are in shul every week, Jews who never go to shul, but for at least one night almost all of us will be doing the same thing: recalling the Exodus from Egypt.

Why?  What makes Passover so important?  What is the essential message of Passover?

When I ask people “what’s the message of Passover” the usual response is “Freedom.”  We were slaves, now we are free.  If that’s all there were to it, however, Passover would not have lasted as a holiday for millenia.  How many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth, the emancipation of slaves in America?

Passover is much more about faith, and about our fundamental beliefs as Jews.  We are told by the Mishnah that every generation is obligated to view themselves as if they, personally, were brought out from Egypt.  We are COMMANDED to tell the story in the first person, as a story that is our story, today, in this generation.  Why?

This is a time for us to draw near to God.  Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth, and we renew our relationship with our Creator.  In the Shema we recite the verse “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt in order to be your God.”  The redemption from Egypt was not just so we could be free from oppression—it was so we would be free to serve God.  But without faith in God, will you be an effective servant of God?

The most effective path toward faith is direct experience.  Now that I live in Israel, my faith in the importance and centrality of Israel to the Jewish people is incomparably greater than it was before I lived in Israel.  Nothing I could have read could have brought me to the same level of understanding as the direct experience.

This is why it is so important to bring our seders to life.  No disrespect to my grandfather, but when I was a kid growing up our seders consisted of speed reading the Maxwell House haggadah so we could get to the food.  It was mostly in Hebrew, so I had no idea what was going on.  I can’t say the experience did much for my connection with the true meaning of Pesach, although it was fun to see my cousins, and the food was great.

Strengthening faith, however, is only one part of the Passover message.  The next question is what do we do with that faith?  There are two key elements in the Passover experience, on the one hand to reinforce our Jewishness, and on the other hand to remind us of our universalistic values that transcend nationalism.

Why is the Exodus story so central to Judaism?  Why do we mention it several times a day in our prayers?  Why does the Torah say (quoted in the Shema), “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” instead of “I am the Lord your God who made you?”  Wouldn’t it be more compelling to focus on God as Creator as a reason to obey the commandments?

The Exodus story is so central because it celebrates the formation of the Jewish people.  Before the Exodus and the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai there really was no such thing as the  “Jewish people.”  There were 12 tribes descended from Abraham, but it was only after the Exodus and the receiving of the Torah that God gave us all the laws, such as keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher, that identify us as Jews.  Passover’s celebration of our Jewishness, and our special relationship with God, is what has kept Passover alive as a holiday for so many otherwise disengaged Jews.  It’s a way to acknowledge who we are, no matter how far we may have strayed.

The Exodus story celebrates our “choseness,” our uniqueness, but that’s not the reason it is mentioned so often in our daily liturgy.  One of the most common recurring phrases in the Torah is “because you were strangers in Egypt.”  We are admonished not to wrong the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt.  We celebrate our uniqueness, through the Exodus story, but it is for the purpose of carrying a universal message: to be kind to the “other.”  We know what it is like to be “other” and we are told, over and over again (36 times) to remember that WE were slaves in Egypt.

Celebrating freedom certainly is part of the Passover story, but it’s not simply a “freedom from”—freedom from oppression, freedom from living in fear—but more than that, it is “freedom to”—freedom to serve God.  Hedonistic “freedom from” – the sort that teenagers especially crave, no one telling them what to do
– is what Janis Joplin immortalized in song: “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”  It’s a very empty freedom. 

That kind of empty freedom pales very quickly.  After the miracle at the Red Sea, and succeeding in getting away from the Egyptians, what’s the first thing our ancestors did?  Complain about how terrible it was living out in the desert, begging to go back to the flesh pots of Egypt.  Many of us with misspent youths can testify to how quickly the novelty of “freedom from” can wear out.

A certain amount of “freedom from” is a necessary precondition for “freedom to.”  Our ancestors needed to be free of the demands of the Egyptians before they could be free to serve God.  Today, each one of us needs to be free from whatever our Egypt is to be able to serve God, family, and the Jewish people.  For most of us, the trick is learning to say “dayeinu,” enough.  As long as you put making money or advancing your career ahead of making time for the things that you would undoubtedly claim are more important, you are a slave.  The handcuffs may be golden, but you’re not free.  True freedom means being able to say “dayeinu,” I have enough.  As it says in Pirkei Avot, “who is wise?  The one who is content with his lot.”

Once we’ve achieved an element of freedom from, we are ready for the freedom to; the freedom to serve God.  And Passover is certainly full of many opportunities to perform mitzvot, to serve God.

When you sit down at your seder this year, remember that the holiday is NOT just about celebrating freedom from Egyptian enslavement.  Spend a few minutes of your seder conversation exploring the question of why God wanted us to be free.  What are you doing to accomplish that mission?

Chag Sameach,

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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